Book Review: The Lamplighter By Jackie Kay

I have admired Jackie Kay‘s work for a long time. Ever since I found Trumpet tucked away on my Mother-in-Laws shelves one summer. Jackie Kay can weave magic with words, in what every form she chooses. So I was genuinely thrilled when Camilla Elworthy sent me a gifted copy of The Lamplighter.

I have sat for an age trying to start this review. There seems to be no catchy or clever way that feels appropriate to open a discussion of a work such as this. I am left with the slightly uneasy feeling that I using use words as ‘important’ and ‘heartbreaking’ will feel trite and insignificant, and that they are words I have over used in the past. This is a book that has truth at it’s core, and a beauty and darkness I fear I don’t have words to convey.

The Lamplighter is the story of slavery, portrayed in a work that reads as a lyrical, mesmerising poem and has been performed both as radio and stage plays. Taking the stories of 5 slaves; four women and one man, here is presented the story of the slave trade. Through a fragmented and tortured narrative we move from the slave forts in Africa, to the slave ships, to Britain and finally the plantations. Through each stage we follow their story.

With a unique rhythm and song, the stark realities of the slave trade and most importantly it’s legacy are presented. This is a collective chorus of loss, shared experiences and histories, there is a sense of one terrifying, appalling, overwhelming story. And yet it is compiled and defined by individual tales.

The power of the collective chorus does not diminish Aniwaa’s experiences as an 11 year, ripped from her family, alone and frightened in a slave pit. Or Mary’s beatings. Or Black Harriot’s life of selling her body to only half survive. These stories, presented as part of a larger whole are a powerful and dark swelling song.

There is a consistent sense of fragmentation to be found here a nonlinear narrative that is allowed to repeat in a dark cycle. The refrain often repeated; ‘I remember, I forget’ gets to the heart of the message. This is the story of not just the past, but how slavery has and continues to affect society today.

Here is the legacy of slavery. From the smell of the slave ships, two days out of dock, to the wealth this trade created, Jackie Kay places this legacy firmly on British soil. Heralded by list of transactions and place names, descriptions of slave markets in Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow; there is no escaping the fact that this is a British legacy. It is part of the fabric on which our society is built. The wealth it created are the shoulders on which our civilisation, ( and you will question that word, I guarantee) has risen . We could pull down a hundred statues and we won’t change that history. That we can’t alter this legacy is indisputable, but we must acknowledge it, own it and learn from it.

Is this an easy read? Or course it’s not. Is it essential? Absolutely.

Jackie Kay, thank you.

Rachel x

The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay is available now, published by Picador

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